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Steely Dan

ABC 1006
Released: September 1977
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 60
Certified Platinum: 12/27/77

Walter BeckerDonald FagenAja is the third Steely Dan album since songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarded a fixed-band format in late 1974. Since then they have declined to venture beyond the insular comfort of L.A. studios, recording their compositions with a loose network of session musicians. As a result, the conceptual framework of their music has shifted from the pretext of rock & roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms. Their lyrics... remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever.

Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan's music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the Sixties. Steely Dan's six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade. By returning to swing and early be-bop for inspiration -- before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop-song structure -- Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts.

"Peg" and "Josie" illustrate this perfectly: tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counterrhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos. Like most of the rest of Aja, these songs are filled out with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush background vocals that flirt with schmaltzy L.A. jazz riffs. When topped by Fagen's singing, they sound like production numbers from an absurdist musical comedy.

The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker's and Fagen's songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they've recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. "Aja" may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.

Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it "downer surrealism"); it's occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of deja vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out. Well, at least it beats rereading the dildo sequence in Naked Lunch.

The last album, The Royal Scam, was the closest thing to a "concept" album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and "Josie," which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic "Black Cow" is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. "Deacon Blues" (a thematic continuation of "Fire in the Hole" and "Any World") exemplifies this album's mood: resignation to the L.A. musician's lifestyle, in which one must "crawl like a viper through these suburban streets" yet "make it my home sweet home." The title and first lines of "Home at Last" (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer's Odyssey -- I don't get it) put it right up front: "I know this superhighway/This bright familiar sun/I guess that I'm the lucky one."

More than any of Steely Dan's previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan's music -- and may, with this album, be showing its limitations -- is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.

- Michael Duffy, Rolling Stone, 12/1/77.

Bonus Reviews!

Steely Dan's eagerly awaited follow-up to The Royal Scam marks a dramatic transition in its unique brand of richly textured melodies. A soothing, breezy jazz overtone smoothly permeates each tune due mostly to the marvelous tenor saxes of Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter and Peter Christlieb. Once viewed as a traditional rock based band, Steely Dan, comprised of vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, has matured into a tight, highly sophisticated professional unit, able to successfully combine creative rhythms, melodies and vocals with complex, often wryly sarcastic lyrics. The band's diversity is acknowledged in its distinctive blues rockers and funky upbeat numbers. Victor Feldman's electric piano solos add a calm earthy feel to much of the material. Dan's impeccable horn, rhythm and vocal syntax reaches new peaks of musicianship. Best cuts: "Aja," "Deacon Blues," "Josie," "Peg," "Black Cow."

- Billboard, 1977.

I have mixed feelings about this latest outing from Steely Dan. I admire the musicianship and writing talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the two remaining members of what was once a six-man group, but I don't hear anything here that measures up to some of the intriguing and slightly spooky tunes they've done before. To be fair, I'm still hung up on "Pearl of the Quarter," from their Countdown To Ecstasy album, which I consider one of the best ballads of the decade.

The seven selections in Aja are not so much pop songs as they are mood pieces taking a more or less jazz direction. In the title track particularly, the lyrics are unfathomable, though they serve as a nice excuse for some nifty instrumental work by the first-class jazz sidemen backing Becker and Fagen. The two strongest songs are "Black Cow" and "Deacon Blues." In the former, a man contemptuously dismisses a lover who is doing her best to ruin herself. The latter is about a fellow who decides to become a jazz musician, and in contains the album's best lyrics.

The arrangements and performances are colorful and persuasive throughout, especially the solo instrumental work by Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, Michael Omartian, and Becker himself, and Fagen's vocals, as always, personify the eerie world of bent characters that he and Becker summon up in their writing. The project is musically successful, then, but I still miss Steely Dan's songs.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 1/78.

Carola suggests that by now they realize they'll never get out of El Lay, so they've elected to sing in their chains like the sea. After all, to a certain kind of reclusive aesthete, well-crafted West Coast studio jazz is as beautiful as anything else, right? Only I'm no recluse. I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too fucking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest. Now if only they'd rhymed "I cried when I wrote this song" with "Sue me if I play it wrong," instead of "Sue me if I play too long." Preferring long to wrong could turn into their fatal flaw. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

During the late '70s, Aja became required soundtrack music for fern bars throughout the country whose owners desired an upscale ambience. This was due to precision-crafted jazz-fusion pop/rock tracks like "Deacon Blues," "Josie," "Peg," and the title track, which featured a wonderfully musical drum solo by Steve Gadd. * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Aja had songs such as "Peg" and "Black Cow" that were just as infectious as those on Steely Dan's debut, Can't Buy a Thrill. But it also showcased expansive moments such as the title track and "Deacon Blues." * * * * 1/2

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Forget for a moment the album's surreal sonic perfection, its melodic and harmonic complexity -- music so technically demanding its creators had to call in A-list session players to realize the sounds they heard in their heads but could not play, even on the instruments they had mastered. Concentrate instead on the profound sadness of Steely Dan's exquisitely arranged Aja. If you couldn't comprehend how Steely Dan, a nearly imaginary band that hadn't released a studio album in two decades, won the 2000 Album of the Year Grammy away from Radiohead and Eminem, this is the place to start understanding why.

Rock has always excelled at embodying adolescent ache. But it's rare when rock captures the complications of adult sorrows almost purely with its sound. Drummer Paul Humphrey's upstroke during the beginning of "Black Cow," the 1977 album's languid opener, is so hesitant, so world-weary that it barely catches up to the pulse he sets with his foot. On the eight-minute title track, instruments layer onto a different drummer, adding chord on top of chord, harmony on top of harmony, until tom-toms and cymbals thunder, raging all that ornate aural architecture away.

Aja's extended tracks achieve their power through a dynamic dance: Mellow, stark passages (which drew a blueprint for "smooth jazz" radio) are offset by obsessively dense musicianship, stacks of notes that grasp at euphoria. Some of the era's hottest jazz instrumentalists -- Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott -- soar through what's often on the surface utterly jubilant. "Peg," the album's biggest hit, is nearly disco, and "I Got the News" isn't far away. The closing cut, "Josie," almost plays the celebration straight, though its backward-looking R&B keeps getting tripped up by restless rhythms. But there are so many unresolved chords, so much sweet dissonance, that the album's sleek virtuosity collapses against itself, leaving behind a loneliness rendered mostly oblique by Donald Fagen's heady wordplay. On "Deacon Blues," he cuts through his own cleverness to paint a picture of noir-shaded simplicity: "Drink Scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel." That's Aja: frustration and failure at the heart of the party.

- Barry Walters, Rolling Stone, 8/30/01.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Can't Buy a Thrill

Album Review:
Countdown To Ecstasy

Album Review: Pretzel Logic

Album Review: Katy Lied

Album Review: Royal Scam

Album Review: Gaucho

Album Review:
Donald Fagen - The Nightfly

Single Review:
"Reeling In the Years"

Book Review: Eminent
- Donald Fagen

Article: "Donald Fagen:
Back To Annandale"

Walter Becker Tribute

Article: Yacht Rock 101

Steely Dan Lyrics

Steely Dan Videos

Donald Fagen Mugshots

Walter Becker Mugshots

In the pre-new wave wasteland of '77, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen created this mini-film without pictures by way of brilliant lyrics and musicanship. This incredible kismet of talent reached the pinnacle of their jazz-pop studio perfection on this funky, slickly produced evergreen that still sounds like tomorrow. Back then you felt mature listening to these radio-phobic, long-form tunes made of aural velvet. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

If you were an audiophile in the late Seventies, you owned Aja. Steely Dan's sixth album is easy on the ears, thanks to both its meticulous production and its songs -- this was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's no-holds-barred stab at becoming a huge, mainstream jazz-pop success. And sure enough, thanks to sweet, slippery tracks such as "Deacon Blues" and "Peg," this collegiate band with a name plucked from a William Burroughs novel and a songbook full of smart, cynical lyrics became bona fide superstars, shooting to the Top Five and selling platinum. And, yes, Aja even won a Grammy for Best Engineered album.

Aja was chosen as the 145th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

By 1977, Steely Dan was less a band than a movable feast presided over by founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker -- but what a feast.

As an album, Aja has little of Pretzel Logic's playful pastiche, or the cynicism of The Royal Scam. Instead, Fagen and Becker crafted a polished, jazz-inflected opus that went on to sell more than five million copies.

"Black Cow" sets the mood -- metropolitan and wry, it tells the story of a cheated-on lover who finally loses patience. Victor Feldman's Fender Rhodes solo is a deft delight, while elegantly syncopated horns ride the bop to the end with impeccable class.

The title track is a different proposition -- a tone poem to the mystique of the Orient, which broadens into philosophical reverie, "Aja" is the album's center of gravity. The song builds a delicate, opium-tinged world, then destroys it in Steve Gadd's shattering drum finale, while Wayne Shorter cries murder on tenor sax.

Perhaps such esoteric leanings led Rolling Stone to say that the album "exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience." This is partly true but it is difficult to hear in "Deacon Blues," their swan song for an aging L.A. hipster, as tender as it is bleakly humorous.

There are also two solid party tunes on the album -- the irresistibly funky "Peg" (later sampled by De La Soul on "Eye Know") and "Josie," a slick homecoming boogie.

With superlative production and performances from 30 of the best session musicians of the day, Aja is a genuine landmark in jazz rock.

- Jamie Dickson, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan had a reputation for fanatical persnicketness. Working on the later Steely Dan records, they were known to spend expensive days in the studio chasing an ideal thwack on the snare drum, endlessly tweaking (and debating) barely perceptible shadings of sound. The hired guns, crucial to Steely Dan starting with the 1975 Katy Lied, were sometimes baffled by the process. (Fagan once recalled that people would leave their sessions saying things like "But we didn't play any music today.") Still, the ends did justify the means: On the level of pure sonic wizardry, Steely Dan records shine like crazy diamonds. Their razor focus and futuristic gleam catch a sonic ideal nobody else imagined.

The darkly acidic The Royal Scam (1976) marks the beginning of the Dan's obsessive phase, and the lean Aja represents its apex. The seven (!) tracks exist in a kind of hyper-real state where each snare drum is a dagger to the heart. Songs that start with shooping, instantly accessible backbeats wind up deep in graduate metaphysics, where abstraction rules and the "angular banjos" mentioned in the title track serve as pathways to illumination. Embedded within these tunes are chord sequences more demanding than you'll find in most jazz, some built on a tonality Becker and Fagan called "mu major." These provide a platform for broiling extended solos, from Becker on impossibly liquid electric guitar, from the furtive Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and from drummer Steve Gadd, whose melodic excursion through the title track is one of the great drum solos of all time.

Aja marks the rare occasion when a pair of wisecracking music obsessives managed an elaborate, unapologetically sophisticated end run around the lowest-common-denominator mentality of pop radio. Yes, there's a killer sense of the hook at work here. But Becker and Fagan are not going to spoon-feed anybody. Your ears have to adjust to their palette. This happened, en masse, upon Aja's release: Several of the songs became radio hits, and the album went on to sell millions. One explanation for the album's success might be the tones Becker and Fagan spent all that time obsessing over. Most music from 1977 sounds like it was made in 1977. Aja is timeless.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

Steely Dan's sixth album is easy on the ears, thanks to both its meticulous production, pristine playing, and its excellent songs -- this was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's no-holds-barred stab at mainstream jazz-pop success. And sure enough, thanks to sweet, slippery tracks like "Deacon Blues" and "Peg," this collegiate band with a songbook full of smart, cynical lyrics became bona fide superstars.

Aja was chosen as the 63rd greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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